Action hero, sex therapist, hot Hollywood mom—no matter what role Paula Patton plays, she goes all the way. Now she’s Tom Cruise’s co-star in the new Mission: Impossible movie, toting guns and kicking tons of ass. And for the first time in her life, Paula P feels free.

This feature appears in Complex's December 2011 / January 2012 issue.

Just a year ago, Paula Patton never would have slipped into a barely there outfit to straddle a pommel horse in front of a camera. The occasional innocent bra shot? Sure. But steamy sexual provocation, complete with come-hither eyes and generous amounts of skin? Not a chance.

Believe it or not, she was just too shy.

From the outside looking in, Patton’s insecurities seem ridiculous. For one thing, she’s drop-dead gorgeous. She’s also a respected actress who’s graced romantic comedies (Just Wright, Jumping the Broom) and critical darlings (Déjà Vu, Precious) alike. Off screen, she and husband Robin Thicke—the Grammy Award–winning singer and songwriter—keep on giving lovesick fools hope by maintaining one of Hollywood’s most functional celebrity marriages. (Their first child, Julian Fuego, was born April 2010.) Her unforgettable performance in Thicke’s steamy “Lost Without You” video shows she’s not exactly as shy as she claims to be.

Still, the Los Angeles native was never comfortable disrobing for anyone else’s visual pleasure. But she’s never had a lead role in a blockbuster like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol either. Sharing screen time with Tom Cruise in the fourth installment of the mega-successful spy franchise, Patton has found her confidence skyrocketing. She’s packing heat and beating down bad guys. It’s the kind of role that very few actresses get to tackle, and Patton knows it. No wonder she’s feeling better than ever about herself. And when she feels good, we feel good, too.

It’s safe to say that Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the biggest film of your career so far. Not every actress gets to be in a franchise that’s earned over $4 billion worldwide. Making Mission: Impossible was a dream come true. It challenged me as an actor because it’s so technical. Any time you’re challenged you get better. I learned so much from working with Tom Cruise—it was remarkable. Also, I got to do my own stunts, and that felt more freeing than anything I’ve ever done. To be able to be that physical was exciting.


I want to be peaceful, but I have a lot of violent rage inside of me. Mission: Impossible was great for helping me get some of that out.


Was that first meeting with Tom Cruise intimidating?
No, actually. He made me feel comfortable; he was so kind. At first I felt like I shouldn’t waste my time, because I just didn’t see how they’d actually cast me. I didn’t think of myself being hired to be in this. Then they kept calling, so I figured, “OK, I have nothing to lose. It would be cool to be a spy. [Laughs.] And it’d be amazing to work with Tom. If they’re calling, there has to be a reason—you have to have more faith in yourself.” So they called and said that they wanted me to do a chemistry read with Tom, and it was like no screen test I’d ever done before. I had my trailer, and the test was on a big soundstage in Paramount. It felt very “old Hollywood.” It was very exciting. I had to learn how to disarm a gun a little bit—or at least be able to fake it—that same day!

Had you ever used a gun before?
Yeah, I had, actually. Before I got married, back in 2005, I did this TV pilot that Antoine Fuqua directed and produced, starring Josh Brolin and myself as homicide detectives—but it didn’t get picked up. I got to learn how to use a gun then, so I wasn’t coming into Mission: Impossible as naïve and fresh as I would have otherwise.

Was the weapons training difficult?
There was a lot of gun training that was far more intense than what I had done previously. The guns expert on set was nicknamed “Peter Guns.”

Not the rapper, obviously.
[Laughs.] No, not him. Ours used to be the head of SWAT teams. He put me through some intense gun training. I’m embarrassed to say how much fun it was. [Laughs.] I’m not somebody who really likes guns. I don’t like the idea of being violent in that way, and yet there’s something so powerful about holding a gun. It’s weird, but it’s the truth. It was fun to feel powerful enough to know that you could protect yourself in crazy situations. He taught me how to attack a man who’s nearly twice my size, and the training actually gave me the ability to do that, if need be.


There’s a scene in the movie where you come to blows with another actress. Did you have any real-life fighting experience?
Not at all. I’d never physically hit anybody until I was doing the rehearsal. They had a stunt man, and we were getting ready, and the timing got screwed up and I really connected with this guy’s chin. And, I have to say, it was gnarly! [Laughs.] But, also, I’ve never felt worse. It’s a whole other thing to hit skin. It didn’t feel good at all, and yet it was like, “Wow, that worked! I can really hurt someone.” It just goes to show you that the smallest person can inflict the most damage if they know what they’re doing, and it’s good for women to know that.


Listen, I'm not someone to be played with! If need be, I can hurt someone.


Would it have felt better if you punched someone you can’t stand, instead of an innocent stunt man?
I would never feel good, though. I’m not that person—I’m much more of a lover than a fighter. I’d be violent to myself before I would to another person. Besides, my hand hurt afterward.

But it’s always good to know that you’re capable of knocking someone out.
Definitely. Listen, I’m not someone to be played with! [Laughs.] If need be, I can hurt someone. I don’t think there’s a problem with that. I just try not to be like, “Oh, I really want to sock this person in the face.” That’s not saying that I’m perfect. Ideally, I want to be a person who tries to have some compassion. But I have said things, like, “I’m going to strangle this person,” or, “I want to murder them!” [Laughs.] Which is horrible. I’m such a.... What’s the word for it? I waver back and forth; I’m many things at once.

There’s a duality to you, in other words.
Yes! Duality! Thank you, that’s the word I’m looking for. I want to be peaceful, but I have a lot of violent rage inside of me. Mission: Impossible was great for helping me get some of that out without really hurting anyone.

Hollywood is definitely lacking in female action heroes. Is that something you’d be game for?
Hell yeah. I’d love to do more action films. I was always athletic as a child, so for me it’s fun to run and jump and get physical. I love all of that. It would be amazing to keep kicking ass in other films, or in more Mission: Impossible films—whatever comes my way. I’m just open to wherever life takes me. I try to put up light guardrails in my life, and leave room for things to come my way and surprise me. If you’re too rigid in your quest for something, you might not see the other amazing possibilities that are thrown at you.

Didn’t you make documentaries before you started acting?
Well, since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be an actress. I would put on plays in my parents’ backyard and wear my mom’s dresses—playing dress-up was my favorite thing in the world. But in high school I became friends with this guy who was this Spike Lee wannabe, and he took me to see Do the Right Thing, and it just changed me. From that, the idea that I could create stories and characters for black women and men to play who weren’t just stereotypes, was incredible for me. I actually made a couple short films after that.

Is that inner revolutionary still inside of you?
Absolutely, but maturity has let me know that there’s a way to deliver a message and still entertain the audience. Back then, I didn’t care about entertaining anyone— I had a point to make, dammit! [Laughs.] The most important thing for anyone who wants to make movies is to entertain people. If you find a way to layer it, give them more depth, and make them think about things, that’s the ultimate success. It’s sad, we now live in a place where commerce is more important than art, but you have to move with the times.


And now you’re starring in a Mission: Impossible movie, which will no doubt kill at the box office.
That’s true, but this one is made by great filmmakers, and I know it’s going to be a great film—I can feel it. That’s one big thing I learned from Tom: the importance of pleasing the audience. The guy’s middle name is “Hard Work.” Just when you think you’re tired, he’s doing a second workout, and he’s got more money than God. [Laughs.] He doesn’t need to work so hard, but he does it. So who am I to complain that I’m back in the gym for the second time in one day? Tom goes hard!

Well, as this photo shoot proves, all of that time in the gym has definitely paid off.
[Laughs.] And what’s crazy is that I haven’t always been this confident.

Which I’d think a mirror would instantly change.
If only it were that easy.


It's a hell of a lot of fun to be sexy; I love to play dress-up in skimpy clothes.


What brought about your newfound sense of confidence?
Being honest with yourself as you get older, and after you live life longer. I’m more comfortable with my flaws now, and with that, you start to feel more confident. When you’re trying to hide all of your flaws, and you’re embarrassed by them, it can be so uncomfortable—very, very uncomfortable. You don’t know who you’re supposed to be. I just hit a certain point when I started to think, “You know what? These are my flaws, and I’m OK with them.” I love me! I’m doing the best I can with what I have. I’m not afraid to say that anymore. I feel comfortable in my own skin now.

Your confidence makes our world a much better place.
[Laughs.] Why, thank you. And you know what? Years ago, back when I was starting out in this business, I never would have done anything like this Complex cover. I wouldn’t have worn the skimpy clothes. I would have thought that I have to prove to the world what kind of girl I am, and blah blah blah. I just go with my instinct now. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to be sexy. I love to play dress-up in skimpy clothes.

We love it, too.
I’m not ashamed to say it. It just feels honest to do something that sexy. I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. Even if my mom doesn’t like seeing me in such provocative ways, it’s OK, because my mom probably isn’t going to like anything that I do. [Laughs.

This is definitely a new place for me to be in, and I’m loving it.

Why has it taken so long for you to get to this place?
You come to a certain place in your life where you don’t feel like people only look at you for your physicality anymore. And I don’t even know if that’s true or not for me. Some people might see a picture of me in a bikini and think, “Who is this chick? I don’t even know who this chick is,” and just look at my body. But I guess I just needed to know that I’m more than that.

So you’re cool with men drooling over these pictures?
It only matters what I feel. I know that I’m smart, and I know that I’m about more than just putting on sexy clothes. It’d be a lie for me to say that I don’t enjoy putting on sexy clothes and showing myself off, and my husband would tell you the same. [Laughs.] He’d be like, “People don’t know who you really are!” Why should I have to hide it? That’s silly.

How big of a factor is your husband in this new confidence?
He is my greatest supporter. He’s never stopped me from doing a single thing; he only encourages me to go for it. He tells me to do things before I even think I’m ready myself.

The two of you have been together for half of your life. For a couple in the public eye, that’s unheard of. How does it continue to work amidst all the stress of fame?
There’s no recipe. There’s no other way to say it—it’s true desire. We’re crazy enough that we just keep wanting to be together. We just don’t not want to be with each other. [Laughs.] It doesn’t mean that we don’t have our ups and downs. We just don’t want to be with anyone else. That’s how we keep it together: desire.

You two seem more comfortable than most celebrity couples discussing your relationship publically. His very sexy “Lost Without You” video felt like a sneak peek into your bedroom.
[Laughs.] I guess it’s because we were in love way before either of us encountered any of this celebrity stuff. We knew each other and loved each other way before any of this. There’s never been a sense of, OK, we shouldn’t talk about it to the press, because we’re in each other’s lives. I don’t know how to keep that a secret.

In one interview, he called you his “sex therapist.” Does it ever make you uncomfortable to read things like that in print?
I hope he’d say that! [Laughs.] Who else would I want it to be? Your wife should be your sex therapist, or if you’re not married, your girlfriend should be your sex therapist. If she’s not, then things aren’t going so well.

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(PROP STYLING) Brian Byrne. (HAIR) Robert Steinken. (MAKEUP) Sam Fine. (MANICURIST) Deana Blackwell. IMAGE 1 & 2: Swimsuit by Hervé Léger / Shoes by Stuart Weitzman / Bracelet and ring by CC Skye / Earring by Alexis Bittar. IMAGE 3,4,6 & 7: Swimsuit by Norma Kamali / Shoes by Stuart Weitzman / Necklace by Fiona Paxton. IMAGE 5 & COVER: Swimsuit by Hervé Léger / Earrings by CC Skye.